Former Gov. Phil Bredesen said Tuesday he believes the people who disagreed with former Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr “got their final shot in” against Farr with a recent comptroller’s report that criticized the department on tax variances.
Bredesen made the comments after an appearance at the University of the South in Sewanee with former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, in which Bredesen said his style in dealing with the Legislature sometimes was to “go right around them.” He noted that former Gov. Don Sundquist did not use the “bully pulpit” of the office for the power of persuasion with the people when Sundquist proposed an income tax.
And Bredesen, a former mayor of Nashville, got his own shot in about term limits at the Metro Council in the capital city, calling the limits of two four-year terms a “disaster.”
Bredesen said his contact with Farr about the comptroller’s report lasted only about 30 seconds.
“He told me about it. I said, ‘That’s fine. You know the crew over there that was trying to do you in got their final shot in. There’s now a report. Fine,’” Bredesen said.
Bredesen said he never had any particular problems with what Farr did.
“He had a department which was very politically divided internally about the way it should operate,” Bredesen said. “This department has always had a group of people who thought, ‘Our job is tax collection, period. What we need to do is audit returns and collect taxes, and that’s the end of it.’
“But you’ve also got people that say, ‘No, no, no, tax policy and the way you do things is part of the process of the department. It’s part of economic development.’ Reagan was in that mode. I think the people that disagreed with him kind of got the final shot in there. I’ve never had any questions about his integrity or decision-making process.”
The report, dated Oct. 17 and addressed to leaders in the Legislature, noted a frequency in recent years where tax variance award letters involved references to economic development. Farr served as Revenue commissioner from 2007-2010. The report also said key department employees were sometimes left out of the decision-making process.
Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he has read the report and wants to concentrate on setting clearly defined procedures in the department.
Bredesen, a Democrat, and Douglas, a Republican, participated in a discussion formally called “American Politics: The View from the Center.” Both are seen as moderates in a time of polarized partisan politics. But that did not prevent Bredesen from being vocal in his views on matters of how to govern.
Bredesen said the direct power of the governor to do something is “demonstrably less” than the CEO of “a good-sized company,” saying the governor is limited in terms of what the Legislature will do and who can be hired and fired.
“What is unparalleled is you have the bully pulpit,” he said. “If you decide as governor to talk about K-12 education for six months of the year, that’s what will get talked about in the state. The chambers of commerce will talk about it. The newspapers will write about it. TV will do stories. You can make that happen. So I’ve always seen the power of the governor as the power to persuade.
“And the way to get things done in the Legislature is to go right around them.”
He noted his former legislative liaison, Anna Windrow, was in the audience and “probably crying” at the comment. His reference to going around the Legislature was to make his point about taking an issue directly to the people.
Bredesen told the audience he went into the governor’s office after Sundquist had attempted to get an income tax approved. Sundquist, a Republican, failed and was largely ostracized by his own party.
“You sort of watch it and say, you know, instead of making a case to the people of the state as to why something needed to change in the tax structure, he didn’t do any of that. He just tried to do it by twisting arms in the Legislature,” Bredesen said.
“What happens is you get your arm twisted, and then you go back home and find out people have got pitchforks about the subject you’re talking about.”
Bredesen won in 2002 on a platform that did not include a proposal for an income tax. He said the state didn’t need one, to the chagrin of some in his party. Bredesen won a second term handily and never proposed an income tax in his eight years in the office.
Bredesen said he had no problems with term limits in the executive branch of government because of the power of incumbency, but he said the term limits enacted by referendum for Nashville’s Metro Council have been disastrous.
“I just think it’s been awful for the city,” he said after the event, pointing to a couple of veteran lawmakers with institutional knowledge as examples of those whose experience can benefit the council.
“I’m not quite sure what problem you’re solving with term limits, and what I think it did is first of all you dramatically enhance the power of the mayor. There’s nobody left on the council with the kind of, you know, the history. There’s no Charlie Fentress on the council. There’s no Willis McAllister on the council.
“You get a bunch of people who are in there and really feel they have to move and shake and make things happen in their early sort of terms. I don’t think it’s worked well for the city.”
Bredesen and Douglas met with students at the university earlier in the day, and Bredesen said the young people asked about how the governors made difficult decisions.
“They wanted to know, ‘How is it done? Tell me about some challenge you had’ — in my case TennCare or something — really a nice set of questions for somebody who is a senior ready to go out in life, not saying, ‘Let me debate,’” Bredesen said.
He said it was different from encounters with people who want to express a view about a specific issue.
“These were young people who weren’t so much concerned about that as they were just, ‘OK, I want to be effective in the years ahead. I’ve got a couple of former governors in front of me. How did you do this?’”
They also wanted to talk about jobs, he said.
“If you’re a senior in college in this economy today, you’re scared,” Bredesen said. “You’re scared about what the workplace holds right now. This is the time in which they want to get out, they want to get a job, they want to build a life, and it’s a pretty scary world out there right now.”